Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

About the Study

“With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” is based on a telephone survey utilizing both landline and cellular telephones. Respondents include a nationally representative sample of 22-to-30-year old adults who have at least some post-secondary education. The survey was preceded by five focus groups conducted in sites across the country.

Telephone Survey

Telephone interviews were conducted from May 7 – June 24, 2009, with 614 young adults aged 22 to 30 years old who have experience with some post-secondary education. The interviews averaged 26 minutes in length and were offered in both English and Spanish. The response rate for the study was 27 percent for the landline portion of the sample; it was 29 percent for the cell phone sample.

The margin of error for the report is plus or minus 4.8 percentage points. However, it is higher when comparing subgroups or question items that weren’t asked of all respondents.

Sample Design

The study employed a dual-frame landline/cell phone telephone design. The sample was designed to be nationally representative of the target population and also to allow separate analyses of African-American and Hispanic respondents. The landline RDD sample was disproportionately-stratified to over-represent area code-exchange combinations with higher than average densities of African-American and Hispanic households. While this method increases the proportion of respondents in this target group[s], special weighting adjustments restore the overall representativeness of the sample.

The telephone sample was provided by Survey Sampling International, LLC (SSI) using standard list-assisted random digit dialing (RDD) methodology. This method guarantees coverage of every assigned phone number regardless of whether that number is directory listed, purposely unlisted or too new to be listed. The cellular sample was not list-assisted, but was drawn through a systematic sampling from dedicated wireless 100-blocks and shared service 100-blocks with no directory-listed landline numbers.

For both the landline and cell samples, quotas were imposed so to fill three main quota groups which were defined as follows:

  • Four-year group - people who completed a four-year program or attended a four-year program and did not finish.
  • Two-year group - people who [a] completed a two-year program, or [b] started a two-year program but did not finish and [c] did not qualify for the four-year group.
  • Drop-out group - people who [a] started a post-secondary education (PSE) program, [b] did not finish the program and [c] did not qualify for the two-year or four-year groups.


The questionnaire was designed by Public Agenda, and all interpretation of the data reflected in this report was done by Public Agenda. As in all surveys, question order effects and other non-sampling sources of error can sometimes affect results. Steps were taken to minimize these, including pre-testing the survey instrument and randomizing the order in which some question and answer categories were read.

The interviewing was conducted by Princeton Survey Research International in conjunction with Princeton Data Source, LLC.

Weighting Procedures

Survey data were weighted to (1) adjust for the fact that not all survey respondents were selected with the same probability and (2) account for gaps in coverage and non-response biases in the survey frame. Weights were applied to balance sample type, race, ethnicity, gender, age, education, census region and household telephone use. The overall design effect of the weighting procedure is 1.47.

The Focus Groups

Focus groups allow for an in-depth, qualitative exploration of the dynamics underlying the public’s attitudes toward complex issues. Insights from participants in these focus groups were important to the survey design, and actual quotes were drawn from the focus groups to give voice to attitudes captured statistically through the surveys. All focus groups were moderated by Public Agenda senior staff. Five focus groups, all with adults between the ages of 22 and 30, were conducted as follows:

  • A mix of young adults, who either did not complete a post-secondary education program or had no post-secondary education experience in Erie, Pennsylvania;
  • Young adults currently in a two year or technical program in New York, New York ;
  • Young adults currently in a four year program in Phoenix, Arizona:
  • Young adults currently in a four year program in St. Louis, Missouri;
  • Young adults who did not complete a post-secondary education program in Seattle, Washington.


"With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them," by Jean Johnson and Jon Rochkind with Amber N. Ott and Samantha DuPont, was prepared with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The authors of "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them" would like to thank the following people for their support and assistance during the preparation of this report:

Our partners at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, WA, especially Marie Groark, Hilary Pennington and Ian Rowe, for providing us the opportunity to conduct this research and the freedom to explore the issues without constraint or bias;

Arthur White, founder of Jobs for the Future, for his contributions to the conception of the project and his invaluable counsel and support;

Dan Yankelovich and Barbara Lee for their insights and guidance;

Scott Bittle for his direction and assistance;

Sanura Weathers for her help in producing this report and her commitment to excellent design;

Melissa Feldshe for bringing our work to the attention of a broad audience;

Francie Grace, David White, Peiting Chen and Allison Rizzolo, of, for producing a distinctive and highly informative online version of this report;

And Public Agenda President Ruth A. Wooden for her vision, insight and guidance.